Groucho and Leo in the soup.

Author:Gehring, Wes D.
Position:REEL WORLD - Brief Article - Product/Service Evaluation - Critical Essay
 
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THE MARX BROTHERS' "Duck Soup" (1933) is one of the watershed films of American cinema. No less a comedy artist than Woody Allen calls it "probably the best talking comedy ever made," and uses an extended clip from it to anchor one of his own later classics--"Hannah and Her Sisters" (1986). Director Leo McCarey's greatest contribution to "Duck Soup" was the mirror sequence, where Harpo (with a painted on moustache, a la Groucho) doubles as his brother's nightgown-attired reflection.

To uncover this famous scene's origins, it is worthwhile to look into McCarey's professional relationship with Charley Chase, who was one of the great--but neglected--clowns of silent-screen comedy. Film historian David Robinson described him as "long and gangly, with a look of hurt bewilderment, a foolish tittle moustache and a vague air of being assembled of slightly ill-fitted parts." This neglects the dapperly attired handsomeness of Chase's comedy persona, though it still is a screen life filmmaker Robert Youngson characterized as "one long embarrassing moment."

The McCarey-Chase collaboration (1924-26) occurred at Hal Roach's fun factory, a silent comedy studio which had, by this time, usurped the laughter mantel from the much-honored Mack Sennett. Despite Chase's longer seniority in film at the time of the McCarey collaboration, most students credit the comedian's greatest works as coinciding with his McCarey teaming. For example, Peter Hogue's groundbreaking "Charley with a Y" article for Film Comment stated, "The artistic blooming of [Chase] is inseparable from the advent of Leo McCarey as Chase's director in mid-'24.... The onscreen results were particularly exceptional in 1925-26."

In screening dozens of these Chase-McCarey short subjects, I was struck by the inventiveness of these silent farces, anticipating such later McCarey screwball comedies as 'The Awful Troth" (1937) and "My Favorite Wife" (1940). Yet, nothing prepared me for the surprise to be found in the Chase-McCarey short, "Mum's the Word" (1926). "Word" is the most elaborate of McCarey's silent comedies of manners. Chase's screen mother has just remarried when he pays her a surprise visit. Since she has not told the second husband about her grown son, she asks Chase to pretend to be the valet. Predictably, the new husband will catch him in several seemingly compromising situations with his mother.

Simultaneously, yet another new member of the household, the maid (Martha Sleeper), adds further farce to...

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